The Structure of the Human VaginalStratum Corneumand its Role in Immune Defense

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The superficial layers of the human vaginal epithelium, which form an interface between host and environment, are comprised of dead flattened cells that have undergone a terminal cell differentiation program called cornification. This entails extrusion of nuclei and intercellular organelles, and the depletion of functional DNA and RNA precluding the synthesis of new proteins. As a consequence, the terminally differentiated cells do not maintain robust intercellular junctions and have a diminished capacity to actively respond to microbial exposure, yet the vaginal stratum corneum (SC) mounts an effective defense against invasive microbial infections. The vaginal SC in reproductive-aged women is comprised of loosely connected glycogen-filled cells, which are permeable to bacterial and viral microbes as well as molecular and cellular mediators of immune defense. We propose here that the vaginal SC provides a unique microenvironment that maintains vaginal health by fostering endogenous lactobacilli and retaining critical mediators of acquired and innate immunity. A better understanding of the molecular and physicochemical properties of the vaginal SC could promote the design of more effective topical drugs and microbicides.

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